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The Beetle And The Damage Done

The Beetle And The Damage Done

In the North, we still live according to the laws of the wild
By Daniel Campbell, Herb Mathisen
Jul 22
From the July 2016 Issue

We humans think we’re so great. We blast, strip and shape the land to our will, to build our comforts, to attempt to make the world move at our speed and to our liking. But are we really in control, or are the beasts that roam free and unimpeded into our humble towns and cities? In the North, despite the best efforts of urban planners and local authorities, it’s certainly the latter.

Try as we might to stop them, bison will forever hold up highway traffic—or, on a slippery road, in a fog, stop it abruptly. Ravens and seagulls will continue to poop on our buildings and cars. Polar bears will keep us locked indoors, prohibiting us from getting to school or work. (A belated thanks, polar bears.) And caribou, appearing unannounced on the horizon, will overtake an airstrip and make it impossible for planes to land or take-off.

While visits from our winged, finned and four-legged neighbours can be delightful, they can also cause delays, disturbances and damage—sometimes with gigantic price tags to clean up the mess they leave.

Illustration by Beth Covvey

Squirrel flambé

Location: Near Whitehorse

Damage: $10,000

Ravens aren’t the only creatures that wreak havoc on power grids. In April 2009, according to the Yukon News, a squirrel scurried up a substation breaker, creating a fault and causing a one-hour power outage for Whitehorse that morning.

Yukoners got off lucky compared to that squirrel, though. The fault triggered by the rodent discharged 2,400 amps into the air around the breaker, creating a fireball, and instantly roasting the rodent at 3,000 degrees Celsius. (The squirrel caused about $10,000 in equipment damage.)

You'd think this would serve as a powerful deterrent, but squirrels are stubborn critters and have since found ways to infiltrate other substations, periodically downing power.

Illustration by Beth Covvey

Furry firestarter

Location: Meadowbank gold mine

Damage: +$18 million

Food can be hard to come by in the wintertime on the tundra, as one wolverine proved in March 2011 when its nose led it underneath the kitchen at Meadowbank gold mine, 100 kilometres outside of Baker Lake, Nunavut.

On its way to the kitchen’s grease trap, the hungry wolverine chewed through the outer cover of an electrical heating coil and the coil itself, causing a short circuit, which ignited a fire.

The fire completely destroyed the mine’s kitchen and dining facilities, which cost US$18 million to replace. The mine also had to cut back on on-site staff for eight weeks after the fire, which caused production to lag. 

The wolverine may have been a blessing in disguise though: the new kitchen is a big upgrade over the last one. It features a training room, employee lounge, music room, and a country-food kitchen for Inuit workers.

Illustration by Beth Covvey

Beat it, beetle

Location: Southwest Yukon

Damage: $420,000

From about 1990 until just a few years ago, the spruce beetle feasted on the Yukon. The beetle, native to North America, bores into white spruce trees, lay its eggs and the larvae then feeds on nutrient transporting tissues, which, over time and repeated infestation, kills the tree. One estimate put the total number of trees destroyed by the insidious bugs at 100 million territory-wide, or more than half of the white spruce trees over 400,000 hectares—greater than two-thirds the size of PEI.

Weather was to blame—drier, hotter summers left trees vulnerable to beetle attacks and milder winters didn’t kill off all of the insects. Also, the warmer temperatures some years sped up the beetle’s life cycle from two years to one, aggravating the problem.

Since 1995, governments have spent $420,000 to monitor the spruce beetle. But surprisingly, the beetle's also brought some money to nearby Haines Junction: the territory's $5 million-per-year fuelwood industry has been focused on harvesting the area's dead trees.

Illustration by Beth Covvey

The flaming raven

Location: Yellowknife

Damage: $215,000

There were plenty of forest fires around Yellowknife in the summer of 2014, but none had odder origins than the one started by the flaming raven.

On June 16, a raven’s wings touched a transmission line and pole near the Bluefish hydro plant north of the city. The bird exploded and fell to the dry ground in a ball of flames—igniting a fire in the surrounding forest. The resulting blaze burned at least 15 hectares of forest, requiring three firefighting ground crews, a helicopter and a CL-215 water bomber. Power went out to the city and two neighbouring communities for more than an hour. The cost to put out the forest fire around the hydro plant was $215,000.

The irony is the power company had been in the process of bird-proofing its transmission lines, starting with the ones closest to the city—a veritable raven metropolis. It only had three kilometres left to complete—exactly where the flaming raven met its end. 

Illustration by Beth Covvey

The million-dollar duck

Location: Outside Yellowknife

Damage: ~$1 million

On May 7, 1962, Michel Sikyea shot a female mallard duck outside of Yellowknife. He shot it to eat it, but according to the government, he shot it out of season. Canada was signatory to the Migratory Birds Convention Act, which prohibited the hunting of ducks outside a period of 45 days in the fall. An RCMP officer found Sikyea with the duck and charged him. But wasn’t Sikyea protected by Treaty 11—signed in 1921, when he was 20 years old—to hunt and fish on the land regardless of season or legislation? That’s exactly what Sikyea argued in court. 

The ensuing legal battle was one of the first to define aboriginal rights to hunt and fish—practices enshrined in the treaties, yet apparently not recognized by government. Sikyea was acquitted by Judge J.H. Sissons that November, but that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals in 1964 and reinforced with a unanimous Supreme Court judgement finding that Sikyea had unlawfully killed a “wild duck” out of season. But reverberations of the case are felt to this day: aboriginal and treaty rights were enshrined in 1982 and continue to be debated—and in most cases, strengthened—in courtrooms across the country.

In the end, Sikyea was ordered to pay a $10 fine, while the government had to foot its own legal bills, totalling about a million bucks. For years afterwards, Sikyea would joke with suits outside the Yellowknife courthouse, asking if they wanted to see his million-dollar duck